Religious experience is something that has been shared by a significant minority (although it is perhaps a majority) of the population of the world. Surveys indicate that in 2000 about 36% of the population of Britain reported some kind of spiritual experience (Kwan, 515). 36% is a significant minority, but the fact is that it is possible that this number is too low. In fact, when people were allowed to develop a relationship and then conduct an interview (rather than simply have an impersonal poll), the percent of positive responses when asked about a religious experience increases to 62-67% (Kwan, 515).
The numbers are significant. Many people have what they perceive of as spiritual or religious experiences. The number is literally millions, if not billions. But what does this really mean? Does it reveal anything about the universe? Is there any way to argue for truth from such a subjective judgment?
Richard Dawkins certainly does not think so. In The God Delusion, he discusses the “Argument from Personal ‘Experience’” (note his use of scare quotes). Dawkins uses an illustration in which a man he knew thought he had heard the voice of the devil while camping, and when he shared this with some zoologists, they laughed at him… for the noise was simply the noise a local bird makes (Dawkins, 112).
I believe Dawkins almost manages to make a good point here. We should be skeptical of religious or spiritual experiences, if we ever experience them (1 John 4:1- Test the spirits…). But does this mean that every religious experience has a naturalistic explanation? Or indeed, does a naturalistic explanation somehow take precedence over a spiritual one?
Dawkins some convoluted argument against religious experience based mostly on the computational theory of mind (see here for a critique of CTM). I don’t think he is successful, but one can judge for themselves whether the CTM has any kind of explanatory power, or if it serves as a defeater for the spiritual (I again think it doesn’t in either case).
I would like to address the assumptions implicit in Dawkins’ story about religious experience in greater depth. If Dawkins doesn’t make this argument, it is certainly an argument I’ve heard many times before:
Conclusion: For any Religious Experience, there is a naturalistic explanation.
In the case of Dawkins’ story of the bird, there was indeed a naturalistic explanation. But there are two counters I would use against Dawkins and others who would argue against Religious Experience:
Counter 1: The claim that every religious experience has a naturalistic explanation begs the question.
Counter 2: A naturalistic explanation does not exclude other explanations.
First, let’s address Counter 1. I argue that the claim that every religious experience has a naturalistic explanation begs the question. What do I mean? Well, the claim that every religious experience has a naturalistic explanation assumes that for every experience, E, there is a naturalistic explanation. It does not allow for any explanation outside of naturalism to account for any E. To see this, let’s look at what Conclusion, above, analytically:
Conclusion: For any Religious Experience, there is a naturalistic explanation.
Thus: Religious Experiences, do, in fact, exist. (This follows from the first part of the conclusion, which assumes that there is such a thing as a religious experience).
Now, the fact remains that those who experience Religious Experiences (REs) certainly believe there is a non-naturalistic explanation. Hence the reason they are called REs to begin with.
It therefore follows that: A person S, who has an RE, believes that the RE has a non-naturalistic explanation.
But then the Conclusion listed above is really:
Conclusion*: Person S believes their RE is non-naturalistic, when in fact, there is naturalistic explanation.
Conclusion* begs the question, as does Conclusion. They both assume the conclusion “there is a naturalistic explanation” without any grounds to do so. In fact, they assume that the category RE is mistaken to begin with, and it is in fact simply a Naturalistic Experience, not an RE.
The burden of proof is on those who wish to claim that every RE has a naturalistic explanation to actually show that every RE has a naturalistic explanation, especially in light of the argument from theistic experience below. Any simple assumption that every RE has a naturalistic explanation simply begs the question against the Argument from Theistic Experience.
Now, Counter 2 must also be examined. “Counter 2: A naturalistic explanation does not exclude other explanations.”
Let us take Dawkins bird example. Let us change the RE in the example from an example of an evil force to that of a good one. So rather than a demonic sound, the man perhaps thinks he hears angels singing, or some such experience of God or His power. Now we know that the sound is actually just some kind of bird, the “Angel Voice” bird, common to the region. But what if the friend never found out that the noises had this naturalistic explanation? I believe anyone would agree he would happily go on assuming that the experience was an RE.
But what is it about a naturalistic explanation that is supposed to serve as a defeater of RE? I think it is generally assumed that the knowledge of a naturalistic explanation for an RE is supposed to defeat the RE. In other words, if the Angel-hearer found out that the angels were in fact just the “Angel Voice” bird, he would have to give up the experience as an RE and assume it is rather a naturalistic experience.
I don’t think that even the friend’s knowledge of a naturalistic explanation would necessarily serve as a defeater of the RE, for a few reasons:
1. At the time the friend experienced the event, he believed it was an RE. With an RE comes many emotions and other experiences. These emotions and experiences aren’t somehow invalidated by the idea that there is a naturalistic explanation to the RE. For example, think of someone, (A) who has been in love with someone else (B) for many years, believing there was a mutual love. But suddenly, B explains to A that B has never loved A. Does this somehow serve to invalidate A’s love for those years? Further, would A be required to give up love for B immediately, or at all? I don’t believe so. In the same way, person A could believe that B is an RE, and despite finding out that B was in fact a natural event, could go on believing that B is an RE… leading into:
2. Religious Experiences are compatible with natural explanations. It is said throughout the Bible that nature speaks of the glories of God (Psalm 19:1 “The heavens declare the Glory of God…” Psalm 69, Psalm 93, etc.). God is seen within a Christian ontology as one who works in and through nature to sustain the universe. Thus to claim that nature is somehow a defeater of something God is thought to bring about (an RE) not only begs the question, but also misunderstands the Christian view of nature.
3. There are plenty of things that have known naturalistic explanations that are still seen as God’s work by Christians and people of other faiths worldwide. Some examples are the beauty of a waterfall, the stars, various plants and animals, places like the Grand Canyon, etc. People know why these things occur naturally, and yet freely attribute such things to God. They aren’t multiplying entities unnecessarily (don’t begin sharpening Occam’s Razor yet), because they are simply saying that there is a certain order and beauty in all of these things that points to teleology. Further, even if one does want to use Occam’s Razor here, the first and second points still stand.
I’d also like to point out that if God does, in fact, exist, it would be wholly within His power to order things in such a way that REs would have naturalistic explanations that the people who experience them never find out about (and then continue in their belief of the RE). While I am not comfortable with claiming this is how God works (I don’t believe God works through what could be seen as trickery or deception, but does actually work in and through the world He set up, that being nature), I’m merely stating that it is possible.
I believe that the Argument from Theistic Experience actually helps grant warrant to belief in God.
First, a definition:
PCT: Principle of Causal Trust – “If it seems (epistematically) to me that x is present on the basis of experience, then probably x is present unless there are special considerations to the contrary (Kwan, 508).”
1. Type PCT is correct
2. Theistic Experience (TE) is a well-established type of experience
3. It seems (epistematically) to S that God exists on the basis of a TE.
4. The TE is not defeated
5. Therefore, S is justified to believe that God exists
Now note that I’m not claiming that God does exist based on this argument, only that S is justified to believe that God does exist. I am thus confronting the de jure challenges to theistic belief–claims that such belief is unjustified or irrational (Plantinga, 167). These kind of challenges to theistic belief are exactly the kind that Dawkins seems to be referencing in The God Delusion, in fact, the book’s title points to the general accusation that anti-theists have brought against theism in general, but particularly against Christianity. The charge is that it is delusional to believe such things.
And indeed, such charges have (and likely will continue to be) been brought against Christianity despite, and perhaps even because of such arguments as the argument from TE. But I think that the PTC is indeed valid, and warrant is granted to those who have had TEs to take that on principal as a justification for belief.
There is of course further application involving a cumulative case argument in which TE can be weighed against simple spiritual experience or experiences of other faiths (such as a connection to the ONE or a feeling of emptiness). I don’t wish to explore that yet, but it is worth noting that there has been, of late, a somewhat significant increase in writings on these subjects.
I do believe that the argument from TE carries some weight, but it is mostly weight for those who have had TEs to counter charges that such ideas are delusional or unjustified, rather than being an argument for the existance of God. I think arguments of this type are fruitful, and I’m looking forward to reading more on them.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion.
Kwan, Kai-Man. “The Argument from Religious Experience.” The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.
Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief.
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